Despite high primary school enrolment rates, the learning outcomes of students in Bangladesh are poor, especially in rural areas (Islam 2019). This situation is likely to have worsened during the Covid-19 pandemic, as children are missing out all forms of formal schooling given that schools have been closed since March 2020. The learning outcomes of children from poor households and in rural areas are likely to suffer the most during school closures because they lack other non-school educational inputs owing to their low socio-economic backgrounds. Another important issue related to the pandemic is gender inequality. In many developing countries, including Bangladesh, girls disproportionately share household chores and suffer from domestic abuse. In Bangladesh, secondary school dropout rates for girls are as high as 42% (Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, 2017). The high secondary school dropout rates for girls are primarily due to low investment in girls’ education at an early stage, as well as child marriage and greater household responsibilities as they grow older (World Bank, 2019). These burdens may have worsened with Covid-19 induced poverty, income loss, and school closures. Roughly four million girls, in addition to the 12 million yearly child marriages, are at risk of child marriage in the next two years (Burzynska & Contreras, 2020; Hayes, 2020). Learning differences between boys and girls and children of different socio-economic backgrounds are expected to exacerbate during the Covid-19 pandemic given the existing gender bias and the disadvantages from which poor households.
During the current pandemic, the government of Bangladesh provides distant learning through television in lieu of formal schooling, but only 44% of rural households own a television (MICS, UNICEF). On the other hand, 94% of households in rural Bangladesh own a basic cell phone. In the proposed study, we take advantage of this high mobile phone penetration in rural Bangladesh to offer pre-recorded interactive radio instruction (IRI)-based lessons to the primary graders via mobile phone and conduct a randomized controlled trial (RCT) to evaluate this novel intervention that has not be implemented and evaluated in Bangladesh.
Rural children in Bangladesh lack access to online and home-schooling facilities. Our proposed intervention will use a toll-free number to deliver free interactive audio lessons to primary graders for 15 weeks. The program contains three modules with each divided into several 20-minute lessons (i.e., a total of 75 lessons). The modules focus on numeracy, literacy and behavioural training. The behavioural training covers topics such as self-awareness, responsible decision making, relationship skills, social awareness, self-management, and so on. A total of 1500 children will be selected from 60 villages and will be randomly assigned to three groups. The first group will receive four literacy and numeracy lessons each week, the second group will receive six literacy, numeracy and behavioural skill lessons each week, and the third group will be the control.
All lessons will be pre-recorded and stored in a server to play over the toll-free number. Every parent in the intervention will receive a program ID number for them and their child to access the lessons via the toll-free number. Lessons can be accessed 24 hours a day and 7 days a week, allowing the children to learn with convenience. A student will be allowed to a maximum of 3 lessons per module per week. This flexible delivery method will address the resource constraints a rural household typically face, such as many households have only one phone and mobile network and electricity supply is often not stable.
At the end of the program, we will evaluate the impact of this relatively ‘low-tech’ educational service on children’s cognitive and non-cognitive skills. In particular, this study will examine whether the innovation of disseminating educational materials via a toll-free number can lead to better educational outcomes, especially for underprivileged students in society. We will also investigate heterogeneous effects of school interruption and the proposed intervention on learners, with a special focus on gender and household’s socio-economic status as girls and children from low socio-economic backgrounds are expected to suffer the most from the pandemic.
We will collaborate with a local research-focused NGO, GDRI, to implement this intervention with whom we have had a long-term collaborative relationship. We will leverage the sample and data of a recently completed RCT on early childhood education to implement the proposed project. 6000+ children from 223 villages in the south-western part of Bangladesh participated in this recently completed RCT entitled ‘investing in our future’ (funded by UK ESRC-DFID research grants). Building upon that project, the proposed study differs significantly in two ways. First, by following up a large subset of children that we already have measures of their pre-pandemic cognitive and non-cognitive skills, we will shed light on the effects on educational and gender inequality as a result of school closure and barriers to educational technologies. Second, by implementing and evaluating the proposed IRI-based mobile technology in Bangladesh, a severely resource-constrained developing country, we will shed light on a relatively cost-effective and universally accessible educational technology that may potentially ameliorate learning outcome of primary graders and become a feasible addition to the education ecosystem. This proposed study has the following main aims:
• Evaluate the causal impact of an interactive-radio-instruction (IRI) based educational program on the cognitive and non-cognitive outcomes of primary graders.
• Understand the effects of prolonged school closures and potential remedies on the learning development of primary graders.
• Investigate the heterogeneous effect of school interruption and the IRI-based program on the learners of different gender and socio-economic backgrounds.